Road To The Olympic Games


Rio Olympics: Become an instant expert at beach volleyball

Forget everything you think you know about beach volleyball. A certain major motion picture about fighter pilots and even a beloved Nintendo game have been lying to you for years.

Facts, FYIs and terminology that will make you an Olympic 'Top Gun'

Beach volleyball stars Sarah Pavan and Heather Bansley are training hard on and off the beach to get ready for Rio 1:10

By Justin Piercy

Forget everything you think you know about beach volleyball. A certain major motion picture about fighter pilots and even a beloved Nintendo game have been lying to you for years.

Don't worry – before the first serve flies over the net in Rio this summer, we've gathered everything you need to know to make you an instant expert at beach volleyball.

Quick facts

  • While indoor volleyball has long been a part of the Summer Games, it's cool cousin from the shore is a relative newcomer to the Olympic program. Indoor volleyball has been an Olympic staple since 1964, but it was another 32 years until beach volleyball was added to the official Olympic program. It began as a demonstration sport in 1992 before appearing as an official event in Atlanta in 1996.
  • Unlike its indoor counterpart, there are just two players per team and the aim is to win points off of rallies. The team that wins two sets is declared the winner. The first two sets are played to 21 points, with the final set (if it's necessary) being played to 15. There's no ceiling to points -- that means a set continues until a team wins the set by a margin of two points.
  • In the Olympics, there are 48 teams (24 men, 24 women) who compete in a round-robin tournament. Teams arebe grouped in six pools made up of four teams apiece. Following the round-robin (where match winners get one point, and losers get one) the top two in each pool making into the single-elimination tourney. Third-place teams are drawn into lucky loser's bracket, for a second chance at finding their way on the podium.
  • You will often see teammates flash hand signals to each other just before serves. These are non-verbal messages to one another about where they plan to block their opponent.

Gear up!

Don't be fooled by Maverick and Ice Man — jeans are not appropriate beach volleyball wear. 

Heather Bansley will represent Canada in Rio (with her partner Sarah Pavan) and she tells us about the three major pieces of equipment that actually make up the beach volleyball "uniform."

The fact that beach volleyball gear is quite a bit more "revealing" than other sports isn't lost on the athletes. Check out the feature "Hey that's my daughter!" written by someone with a unique perspective on the issue: the stepfather of Canadian beach volleyball star Melissa Humana-Paredes. 

Canada's competition

Bansley and Pavan will have their work cut out for them in Brazil, where the hosts are heavy favourites.

The podium has been dominated by Brazilian and American teams since the sport's inclusion at the Summer Games. Athletes from those two countries have taken every one of the Olympic gold medals handed out, with the exception of the women's in 2002 and the men's in 2012.

Shareable fact: Canada's best-ever finish was a bronze medal won by John Child and Mark Heese in Atlanta in 1996.


Set against the backdrop of Rio's famous Copacabana beach, teams of two men or two women will take to the sands to vie for gold, silver and bronze in on the men's doubles and women's doubles side.

The format is simple: serve, volley, block and spike your way to enough points to win two sets. A coin toss decides who serves first. If the serving team wins the point, they keep serve. If the receiving team wins the point, it's their turn to serve, and they keep the point.

Each set goes to 21 points, but you have to win by two. If a third-set tiebreak is needed, that one goes to 15 points.

The draw

On both the men's and women's draws, teams are divided into six groups of four. Every team plays the other three teams in its group during the round-robin phase. The top two teams in each pool advance, along with the two best third-place teams. The remaining third-place teams play off in a "lucky loser" match to establish who goes on to the round of 16.

Play is single-elimination from then on, through the quarters, semis and finals.

Both the men's and women's brackets kick off on Saturday, Aug. 6th and the knockout stages begin the following Friday, Aug. 12th.

The women's medal rounds are scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 17th. The men get their shots at gold, silver and bronze a day later, on Thursday, Aug 18th.

Speak the language

Here are five terms to sprinkle into conversation while watching beach volleyball to make you sound like a seasoned vet.

  1. Dink – a ball played over the net, or just over a blocker's hands, as more of a tap than a hit. Legal if using knuckles, but not open fingers.
  2. Kong block – a one-handed block of a shot at the net.
  3. Paintbrush – when a player attempt to hit the ball, but only makes contact with the fingertips.
  4. Husband & wife – when a shot lands in the sand between teammates that thought the other would get it.
  5. Six pack – when a would-be blocker absorbs a ball to the face from an attacking opponent. 

Bonus FYI: Beach volleyball players don't actually use the term "spike," it's actually just "hit." Once again, popular culture is working against you!

That's it! Now you're all set for competition in Rio! All you need to do now is work on your high-five game.